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Following the Science Without Forgetting Values

Written by Stephen Rainey

It is presently feared that ‘lockdown’ may be beginning to fray at the edges, as people tire of their restrictions. From the start of the emergency, discussion focussed upon the ability of the public to stay the course where restrictions were at stake. This neatly ignores the public’s being ahead of the government in acknowledging the severity of the situation before the 23rd March announcement to restrict social freedoms. At any rate, concerns over policy effectiveness were addressed through faith in behavioural science (via ‘Behavioural Insights’, née ‘The Nudge Unit’), and communications devices such as the repeated phrase, ‘following the science’.

‘Following the science’ raises reasonable questions including, which science and why? In what sense ‘follow’? To what degree? The idea of creating arguments ‘from science’ for any given policy is presumed sufficient as a motivation, or a reason for citizens to submit themselves to policy demands. However, given the expert basis for these arguments, it is not a safe bet that any given citizen will share the assumptions or knowledge base of the experts, let alone adopt them as straightforward reasons to alter their behaviour. Few people like to be told what to do without at least understanding what is being asked of them and why, so this can be a problem.

Policy response to a viral pandemic requires a solid scientific basis. This basis ensures that policy can be effective. At the same time, policy has to cohere with the values of those to whom it is addressed at least sufficiently enough that they can follow its demands. This value coherence permits policy legitimacy. This is a way of stating the justifications mobilised for any general instruction are not necessarily justifications for a specific person or group to enact changes to their behaviour. I can walk in to any jovial barbecue and explain clearly the varieties of ethical, political, and environmental issues to do with meat production (with sources) but I’m unlikely to gain many vegan converts. It’s too brash a means of presentation, and ignores the context, so the presentation of argument is overshadowed by the brisk ignorance of conditions on the ground. We could say I’ve done a bad job of reconstructing the conditions of applying a norm, besides justifying the norm itself.

The major issue in terms of emergency governance is how changes in norms demanded by policy are justified to citizens. If science is a crucial element in policy making, the inescapable epistemological, communication, and ethical aspects of science must also to be viewed with increased attention and sense of responsibility. Science is multifaceted, and far from univocal. Where an expert is cited as advocating a change in social norms, there isn’t automatically the means for its acceptance by a purported set of that norm’s addressees, such as a citizenry. Without a contextualisation of policy content in terms that respond to the values of those the policy is aimed at, the conditions for the application of the norm (as opposed to the conditions for its justification) can’t be assumed.

The structure of the context is highly important, along with how well served social actors are in reflecting upon their views, presuppositions, social position, and so on. ‘Following the science’ may provide a normative injunction that has a satisfyingly simple form. But in application, it calls for wide variation in terms of resource implication and sacrifice (e.g. food poverty and little access to open space might inhibit openness to lockdown severity). Those most constrained by circumstance may be those with the least capacity to spend time reflecting upon changing their behaviours.

One mode of doing this is to deploy governance measures giving equal consideration to policy effectiveness and legitimacy, through reflection upon the manner in which normative injunctions are contextualised for specific citizens and groups. This minimally involves distinguishing and communicating the different justifications for norm changes (the content of policy), and for the acceptance of norms (the context of policy reception).

For example, one justification for lockdown effectiveness is to maintain a low R0 value for the virus. This is a scientifically-based justification for policy effectiveness. Another means of expressing this is that lockdown, done severely and strictly, will take less time than a lockdown with a 60% uptake, variably observed. Communicated in terms of time, this is still an effectiveness measure, but one that relates to the living of life and so more easily construed as worth going along with.

In crises in general, and the COVID-19 emergency specifically, governance responses tend to become hierarchical – privileging ‘vertical’ governance and adherence to structure. Ironically, it is under emergency that one might benefit most from fine-grained contextual knowledge in decision-making, rather than high level goal-setting. This more ‘horizontal’ and informal governance approach, would identify expertise along vertical lines of a hierarchy, as well as horizontally among a richer group of actors. Verticality can deal with expertise primarily in terms of policy content, hence with its effectiveness. Horizontality can provide means of honing policy legitimacy by recognising the contextualised expertise present among those further from policy formation, but closer to policy implementation. This in turn boosts effectiveness, in a virtuous cycle.

A lot of academic literature exists on the benefits for policy in terms of effectiveness and legitimacy of horizontal governance. In particular, analysis focusses upon how governance structure and the agency of those acting within the governance structure interact to permit or hinder ethical decision-making. Implicit accounts of responsibility within governance – including how it is constructed as a function of structural role, or agency – mirror tensions between effectiveness of policy response, and legitimacy of that response. But perhaps owing to the very high stakes in emergency response, there is not yet an apparent willingness to experiment with novel governance structures.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to make such experiment. Because the vertical mode of governance inhibits the possibility for highly contextualised judgement, it thereby precludes ethical decision-making by foreshortening the possibility for agential responsibility. Connected to this context-minimisation is a risk of ineffective governance, as detailed contextual influences on the decision-making processes are de-prioritised through preoccupation with directives from the highest levels of policymaking. From these two dimensions, responsibility and effectiveness, ethics can be seen to supply correctives to shortcomings in top-down, emergency governance.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Is this post indicating a lack of open supporting information about the decisions being implemented; a frustration with the implementation of decisions confusing other work under way; a concern that unethical outcomes are being implemented; concern over authoritarian implementation; or a claim for a place at the table?

    1. Hi Ian,

      Thanks for this.

      This is a description of what comes out of a normative analysis of how governance measures are formulated, with respect to their effectiveness and legitimacy.

      Policies formatted in a decontextualised way will have supporting arguments (ideally) that will justify the content of the policy. But regardless of that content, if subsequent arguments are not formulated that consider the context of that policy’s implementation for specific groups and individuals, they won’t succeed as legitimate policies. The content might be normatively justified according to a variety of lights, but they won’t be justified according to basic democratic norms. One parallel of this kind of issue comes in terms of communication strategy: how a policy is communicated includes some justification of it. But a universal audience, alike in receptivity, can hardly be assumed.

      On a model of governance deficient in considering policy norms in their intended contexts of application it isn’t that unethical outcomes are being implemented, but rather that ethics can’t enter the picture. The model of responsibility is wrong from the outset. Because of a neglect of context, ‘outcomes’ can’t be mandated for in the first place. Only decontextualised injunctions made to a non-specific group of imagined addressees whose subsequent behaviour will be guided by their own interpretations and values. Only bey engaging with those values can an outcome be driven at at the level of the normative injunction, and so considered in terms of responsibility. The ethical failures are not at the level of outcome, in this analysis, in this crisis, but at the level of governance (i.e. vertical, top-down, command and control is the wrong model for this).

      1. Hello Stephen,

        Thank you for your thoughtful and considered response to my questions, which had arisen out of perceived syllogistic references to other issues of that time. Clearly those perceptions and other symbolisms were in my own head rather than actually contained within the post.

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